Today’s Christmas defines our times
Dec 21, the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, has long been a big party day. After this date, the weak and sickly sun starts to heal and grow stronger. It’s a great excuse to let go, and what better way to distract oneself from a cold dark winter without central heating?
Ancient Britons, Norsemen and Germans brought branches of evergreen trees into their homes as a reminder that soon enough the land would turn green and grow with life again. This theme of resurrection and renewal fit well when Christianity came along.
Some ancients also believed that their dead ancestors lived in the leaves of trees and these ancestors all migrated to the pines and firs in winter- a reverence for nature as reservoir of all life that wouldn’t blend well with the new “forest health” policy. Bringing sprigs indoors symbolically kept their ancestors warm.
They favored holly and mistletoe. Holly maybe because it is such a lustrous green and mistletoe because it is a “magic” plant existing without roots, a symbol of eternal life. Enemies hugged under mistletoe when swearing to a truce and it did second duty as a fertility symbol. Be careful whom you kiss and hug under this potent parasitic plant.
You may eat a log-shaped chocolate cake. This dessert is all that remains of the traditional yule log. Yule comes from the Saxon word “hweol,” meaning wheel, a reference to the never-ending cycle of the sun. The huge log was communally dragged into the hall and set on fire for the 12 days of Christmas. These blazing flames not only kept all concerned warm, but also helped the sun regain its strength, according to this myth.
Pagan north Germans worshiped a one-eyed god known as Woden and had a nasty habit of sacrificing nine kinds of every living thing and hanging them from a large fir tree. “Oh tannenbaum, oh tannenbaum” doesn’t sound quite so merry now. Thankfully Christianity forced a more civilized approach to Christmas and we only decorate with lights and ornaments now.
A more modern explanation is that in 1500 Martin Luther became so struck by the beauty of a fir tree twinkling in the snow and moonlight that he rushed home and set one up with lit candles to show his children. He explained that the candles represented al the stars in heaven that honored Christ’s birth, according to this story. Martin Luther was big on God being present in the natural world for everyone and not only in the temples and control of the powerful Catholic Church. Carols originally seemed to be concerned with community dancing and fit in with feasts. These original carols had no religious overtones whatsoever, their words reflecting the joy of merrymaking and life. Monks later wrote a bunch of carols with religious significance as they co-opted ancient tradition into their fold. A nice flat open place to dance for these early carolers happened to be the graveyard, and there are tales of priests battling carolers and their pagan dancing.
Christianity sensibly adopted many of these traditions and used them to help celebrate the birth of Christ. All this stopped in Puritanical England when Cromwell abolished Christmas, supposedly because of its pagan roots, but he probably because he just couldn’t dance. You could be arrested for heresy for celebrating Christmas! Christmas in England never fully recovered until Queen Victoria’s reign. Her husband, Prince Albert, came from Germany and he popularized the Christmas tree, lights, greeting cards. Most of what we now think of as a traditional Christmas is straight out of Charles Dickens and the Victorian era.
Gift giving came from the Dutch, who gave presents on St Nicholas Day, Dec. 6. St Nicholas is a shadowy figure in Asia Minor who gave his possessions to the poor. One story has him giving three bags of gold to three young ladies and saving them from a life of prostitution. These three bags evolved symbolically into three gold balls, which are now the sign of a pawnbroker!
In the late 1700s this gift-giving tradition transferred to the Anglican holiday of Dec. 25.
Every culture had a secular folk figure similar to Santa Claus. The Russians had a girl known as Befana who rode around on a broomstick. Somehow at the same time as St Nicholas’ gifts moving to Christmas, Santa Claus became tied up with the Christ Child or Christ Kindlein, aka Kris Kringle.
The Puritanical heritage of New England kept Christmas celebrations here pretty erratic into the 1800s. Until 1870, in Boston schools stayed open on Christmas day and students were expelled for being absent. Employers often started work at 5 a.m. to prevent employees from going to church. This attitude changed with the influx of European and Irish immigrants.
The USA created the modern Santa Claus. In 1822 the poet Clemente Moore published a poem, one version of which, “The night before Christmas,” defined our idea of Santa. In 1860, the cartoonist Thomas Nash created the visual image of Santa, though at this time he remained an elf. Santa only became full-sized after a 1931 Coca-Cola advertising campaign depicted him as such. Rudolph arrived later in a song.
Some, like the Puritans, think that the old pagan traditions undermine Christmas. To me a festival is important for why we celebrate it now. The message of love, forgiveness, charity and tolerance that the birth of Christ represents is a great message.
I worry a little that excessive commercialization and materialism associated with Christmas may overwhelm Christ’s messages, but then celebrations adapt to the times they live in.
One thing you can be sure of, though, midwinter will always be celebrated with friends getting together for a party and a feast. We’ve done it forever and it is too and dark outside not to.
Alan Braunholtz, ski instructor and raft guide, writes a weekly column for the Daily.